How to Win at Games – Part 1

Rules Explanation

1. Don’t expect reading a blog to help…

When I asked people what I should write about in this blog, the advice was “pick something that interests you.” This is quite a broad group of things, and the first two which occurred to me were: “Is decoherence a full description of quantum-mechanical wavefunction collapse?” and “Boobs.” However, I felt instinctively that neither of these subjects was quite what was wanted, so I decided to write something about how to win at boardgames instead.

Of course, in order to be able to tell other people how to win at a game I first have to know how to win myself. There are a few obvious options – playing a co-op game on the easiest setting, or playing a heavy strategy game against a complete beginner and crushing them mercilessly so that they never want to play again, for example. Indeed, judicious opponent selection is undoubtedly the fastest and most effective way to increase your win rate. However, providing advice suitable for those unfortunate enough to end up playing against vaguely competent opponents is more tricky, so I shall start off on home territory by talking about my favourite board game: Uwe Rosenberg‘s Agricola.

Agricola is a game that a friend of mine once described as “The worst three hours of my life,” pointing out that it was a three hour board game that didn’t even involve fighting or space. What (in my opinion) makes Agricola such an excellent game is that it is different each time you play it. Many games have variable elements designed to add replayability, but few work so well – often the variable elements have comparatively little effect on the gameplay, or too few possible configurations, or sometimes both. Essentially, what makes Agricola a good game is that there is no hard and fast rule about how to win. Every player has to re-invent their strategy anew each time they play, and adapt it on the fly during the game in response to unexpected changes. Agricola encapsulates the essence of the most important thing I can say about how to win at games: the best games are the ones that I can’t tell you how to win.

2. There’s a reason they’re called strategy games!

Having previously established the impossibility of giving explicit instructions for winning a good boardgame, I shall try instead to set out what I think are the key points to consider when constructing your own strategy. The first point is that you should have a strategy. Even if you don’t yet know a game well, try to analyse it to some degree: what is the win condition, what makes it difficult to achieve and how could you mitigate that difficulty? Is there some way to enhance your economy or capabilities before moving towards that victory condition? You might not make the best choices at first, but you will learn faster. You can probably make some early headway by taking strategy advice from experienced players on your first play of a game, but remember that as you improve it will be important to learn when to ignore the standard strategy tips as well as when to follow them.

So, assuming that you do now have a strategy of some kind, the next thing to learn is when to deviate from it. Board games are a fast-paced, ever-changing and adrenaline-fuelled environment. Take Agricola for example. The tag line for the game is “The seventeenth century: not an easy time to be a farmer.” Over the course of just three to four hours players will collect some building resources, plough a few fields and maybe even build a fence or two, all while constantly struggling to scrape together enough food to feed their family. The sheer whirlwind excitement of this kind of game can overwhelm the unwary, but it is important to keep your head amongst the chaos. Every move made by an opponent, and everything revealed at the start of a new round, changes the game dynamics and alters the balance between the available strategies.

Sometimes you will be presented with an opportunity so good that it is worth taking a turn out from your grand plan for, but other times you will need to avoid being lured off course by a tempting opportunity that is nevertheless not good enough to justify the delay. A common example in Agricola would be having to choose between taking a large pile of resources from a space where they have unexpectedly been allowed to accumulate, or getting to a key permanent space like occupation or family growth before your opponent.

On occasion you will need to modify or entirely change your ongoing strategic objectives, rather than merely taking a turn out from them. These kinds of carefully calculated judgements are a large part of most strategy games, although in Agricola giving in to hedonism and temptation is often strategically sound, as one of the best ways to grow your economy is to have unprotected sex (using the “Family Growth” action space) as early and as often as possible. It is also important to take this into account when devising your strategy at the start of a game (the fact that you might have to deviate from your strategy, not the unprotected sex). Building in a certain amount of versatility so that you can adapt to changing game conditions and unexpected behaviour from your opponents is essential.

3. Know what normal is.

Although this is often a question that serious boardgamers struggle with, the key principle was illustrated very neatly by a friend of mine from work. I introduced him to Agricola some time ago and, in a fine demonstration of just how cool we physicists really are, he produced a spreadsheet showing the actions he would take in a “standard” game of Agricola. He deliberately avoided using anything that would be unique to a specific game, or taking any actions that he would realistically be prevented from taking.

The result was, of course, not amazing, but the point was that once he had established what a “standard game” was he put himself in a much better position to judge how good his moves were. When considering some course of action that did depend on specific circumstances, the first question he would ask himself was “Is this better or worse than playing the standard game?” I would recommend this as a good approach in general. Before jumping at a unique opportunity or using a special ability, ask yourself what you would do otherwise that does not rely on special circumstances or abilities, then use this as a benchmark to judge how good your plan really is.

You can read part 2 here: How to Win at Games – Part 2

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I am a physicist who lives in Nottingham and I have been boardgaming for the last 10 years. My favourite boardgame is Agricola. I also enjoy playing the Yetis in Terra Mystica, hence the profile pic. I should also credit Sophie for drawing most of the cartoons that feature in the blog. Without her, there would be no grumpy oxen.

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